Managing References – Work Smarter, Not Harder

I still remember the time I had to write a reference list for my first psychology undergraduate essay. I tried to add to the reference list each time I mentioned a new paper. But then I would savagely cut my paper down (because I was way over the word limit) and then have to cross-reference every single in-text citation with my reference list. It was a pain and it took ages. Time I would have rather spent writing a good essay. Also, referencing styles are finicky and a pain to learn.

I was fortunate enough, in my second year, to be introduced to the concept of a reference manager and I have never looked back. It fit beautifully with my philosophy of “working smarter, not harder”.

The benefits of a reference manager

There are many reference managers on the market. For example, Mendeley, Zotero, Endnote… the list goes on and on. For an in-depth comparison, check out this thorough (but slightly unreadable) page on Wikipedia. Here is a slightly more readable blog post that compares five different reference managers.

I won’t waste time describing exactly what they are (see this Nature article for more information), but they all serve a similar purpose: It is a way for you to collect your references in one place, read/highlight/annotate them (depending on which program you choose), insert citations as you write, and then insert a perfectly formatted reference list with the click of a button.

I use Mendeley for my work. Here is a list of things that I love about it:

  • I can read, highlight, and make notes on the PDFs
  • It syncs over the cloud so I can move between devices and pick up where I left off
  • I can change the citation style easily
  • Some journals with specific citation styles have a “style” that can be uploaded to Mendeley from their website
  • I can search my PDFs easily
  • I can collaborate with other people by creating a “group” and we share references in that group

In short, if you are writing up research then you need a reference manager in your life. Investing time up front to learn it will save you time down the road.

Additionals to a reference manager

However, a reference manager alone may not be enough and I’ve known this for a while (but have been trying to ignore this problem). The twitter thread linked below describes how one person catalogues papers. I like her system and I’m thinking of doing something similar. At the moment I just have many different folders with unhelpful labels.

I loved this video on how to use slicers in an excel document. I created one for a scoping review and it made life so much easier rather than using tables in Word. I plan to create one for my next post-doc position and maybe one day go back and make one for my PhD topic. Maybe.

But if you’re just starting out, I would recommend starting one now. Future you will thank you.

What else do you do to organise your references?

– Alessa

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